The Dialectic

"With each dialectic there is the desire for synthesis and closure."


Apollo and Dionysus at Delphi, Attic vase, fourth century BC. The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.

Apollo, with a crown of laurel, bids goodbye to Dionysus (bearded, wearing tragic garb and carrying the thyrsus) ruled Delphi during the three winter months while Apollo was banished to the north for the killing of Python. The ecstatic aspect of Apollo’s oracle is  brought into alliance with the religion of Dionysus, Between them is a palm tree, a symbol of Apollo and victory, triumph, peace and eternal life.  Beneath them is the Delphic omphalos or navel, center of the world. The grave of Dionysus was on Mt  Parnasus, part of Apollo’s precinct.  Behind them a palm tree, a symbol of Apollo. The other figures are maenads and satyrs, followers of Dionysus.

Dionysus is classified by mythographers as a vegetation deity whose life, death and rebirth embodies the cycle of plants.  Dionysus as god of the vine, embodies the theological themes of life, death, resurrection and immortality. The grave of Dionysus was shown in the Delphic temple beside a golden statue of Apollo. Shortly after his burial he rose from the dead and ascended up to heaven.

The narration of this cycle was reenacted by religious ritual. Each spring followers of Dionysus gathered to celebrate his resurrection at Delphi. The Cretans celebrated a biennial festival at which the passion of Dionysus was represented in detail. All that he had done or suffered in his last moments was enacted before the eyes of his worshippers. In front of them, to the music of flutes and cymbals, was carried a casket supposed to contain the sacred heart of Dionysus.  As the resurrection formed part of the myth, it also was acted at the rites and was inculcated to the worshippers. Plutarch wrote of  immortality of the soul as revealed in the mysteries of Dionysus.

In another version, Dionysus descended into Hades to bring his mother Semele up from the dead and the Lydians celebrated the advent of Dionysus in spring from the underworld - the god was supposed to bring the season with him. 

Where Dionysus is the deity of the life force, the irrational, and the desire for immorality, Apollo represents reason, light, truth, restrained music, poetry, and much more. In short, the god of civilization

          Apollo with the Muses on Mount Parnassus by Raphael,  (Vatican Stanzas)

The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music,

Friedrich Nietzsche, 1872

Nietzsche, educated as a philologist, explored the history of the tragic form and introduced the dichotomy of the Greek mind between the Dionysian and the Apollonian (disordered and undifferentiated by forms versus reality ordered and differentiated by forms). Nietzsche claims life always involves a struggle between these two elements, each battling for control over the human psyche. In Nietzsche's words, "Wherever the Dionysian prevailed, the Apollonian was checked and destroyed.... wherever the first Dionysian onslaught was successfully withstood, the authority and majesty of the Delphic god Apollo exhibited itself as more rigid and menacing than ever." Yet neither side ever prevails due to each containing the other in an eternal, natural check, or balance.

Nietzsche argues that the tragedy of Ancient Greece was the highest form of art due to its mixture of both Apollonian and Dionysian elements into one seamless whole, allowing the spectator to experience the full spectrum of the human condition. The Dionysian element was to be found in the music of the chorus, while the Apollonian element was found in the dialogue which gave a concrete symbolism that balanced the Dionysian revelry. Basically, the Apollonian spirit was able to give form to the abstract Dionysian.

After the time of Aeschylus and Sophocles, there was an age where tragedy died. Nietzsche ties this to the influence of writers like Euripides and the coming of rationality as represented by Socrates. Euripides reduced the use of the chorus and was more naturalistic in his representation of human drama, making it more reflective of the realities of daily life. Socrates emphasized reason to such a degree that he diffused the value of myth and suffering to human knowledge. For Nietzsche, these two intellectuals helped drain the ability of the individual to participate in forms of art, because they saw things too soberly and rationally. The participation mystique aspect of art and myth was lost, and along with it, much of man's ability to live creatively in optimistic harmony with the sufferings of life. Nietzsche concludes that it may be possible to reestablish the balance of Dionysian and Apollonian in modern art through some of the operas of Richard Wagner, in a rebirth of tragedy.


Any synthesis between Apollo and Dionysus is only temporary. The conflicts in the world and in the human mind and heart are never ending.  Heraclitus said being should hear the logos-hagia sophia and act accordingly. There is a modern version which incorporates the basic ideas presented in the essay.

Nikos Katzantzakis was the quintessential 20th century man in his search. First student of Nietzsche's ideas, then a follower of Lenin and a student of Buddhism who eventually returned to his childhood religion.  In his novel, The Last Temptation of Christ, Jesus shares Katzantzakis' metaphysical and existential anguish. Jesus seeks answers to the haunting questions of life and is torn between his sense of duty and mission on one hand and, on the other hand, his human desire to enjoy life, to love and to be loved as a man. A tragic figure, in the sense of Sophocles' Antigone, who in the end sacrifices his human hopes for a wider cause.  Kazantzakis' Christ is not a passionless deity but rather a passionate human being who has been given a mission with a meaning that he he does not clearly understand. A mission that ultimately requires the sacrifice of his life for its fulfillment. He is subject to doubts, fears and even guilt, but whose internal struggle and sacrifice gives meaning and hope to suffering humanity. His view of the relationship of Jesus and Judas is not unlike the yin and yang of eastern thought where the opposites when in balance support one another.

The novel opens with these words. "A cool, heavenly breeze took possession of him" and the awareness of  of the dialectic is revealed in this dialogue between Jesus and  Judas. 

"You will, Judas, my brother. God will give you the strength, as much as you lack, because it is necessary—it is necessary for me to be killed and for you to betray me. We two must save the world. Help me."

Judas bowed his head. After a moment he asked, "If you had to betray your master, would you do it?"

Jesus reflected for a long time. Finally he said, "No, I'm afraid I wouldn't be able to. That is why God pitied me and gave me the easier task: to be crucified.” 

Mythographers would classify the Jesus of the gospels as a vegetable god, who like Orpheus and Dionysus are killed and reborn.  Each spring the rebirth is celebrated by their followers.  Katzantzakis cast his Jesus in a less dazzling role, but one that truly makes Jesus the Son of Man. What we want is magic, what we have been given is the capacity to love and the ability to be free agents. This idea was never better expressed than by Dostoyevsky.


                    The Grand Inquisitor, a parable in Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov


 Christ comes back to Earth in Seville at the time of the Inquisition. The  people recognize him and adore him, but he is arrested by the  Inquisition leaders and sentenced to be burnt to death the next day. The Grand Inquisitor visits him in his cell to tell him that the Church no longer needs him.

The Inquisitor frames his arguments around the three questions that Satan asked Jesus during the temptation of Christ in the desert. These three are the temptation to turn stones into bread, the temptation to cast Himself from the Temple and be saved by the angels, and the temptation to rule over all the kingdoms of the world. The Inquisitor states that Jesus rejected these three temptations in favor of freedom, but the Inquisitor thinks that Jesus has misjudged human nature. He does not believe that the vast majority of humanity can handle the freedom which Jesus has given them. The Inquisitor thus implies that Jesus, in giving humans freedom to choose, has excluded the majority of humanity from redemption and doomed it to suffer.

 The Church follows "the wise spirit, the dread spirit of death and destruction", i.e., Satan. He says: "We are not with Thee, but with him, and that is our secret! For centuries have we abandoned Thee to follow him". For he, through compulsion, provided the tools to end all human suffering and for humanity to unite under the banner of the Church. The multitude then is guided through the Church by the few who are strong enough to take on the burden of freedom. The Inquisitor says that under him, all mankind will live and die happily in ignorance. Though he leads them only to "death and destruction", they will be happy along the way. The Inquisitor will be a self-martyr, spending his life to keep choice from humanity. He states that "anyone who can appease a man's conscience can take his freedom away from him".

The Inquisitor advances this argument by explaining why Christ was wrong to reject each temptation by Satan. Christ should have turned stones into bread, as men will always follow those who will feed their bellies. The Inquisitor recalls how Christ rejected this, saying "man cannot live on bread alone", and explains to Christ: "Feed men, and then ask of them virtue! That's what they'll write on the banner they'll raise against Thee and with which they will destroy Thy temple. Where Thy temple stood will rise a new building; the terrible tower of Babel will be built again, and though, like the one of old, it will not be finished". Casting himself down from the temple to be caught by angels would cement his godhood in the minds of people, who would follow him forever. Ruling over all the kingdoms of the Earth would ensure their salvation, the Grand Inquisitor claims.

The segment ends when Christ, who has been silent throughout, kisses the Inquisitor on his "bloodless, aged lips" instead of answering him. On this, the Inquisitor releases Christ but tells him never to return. Christ, still silent, leaves into "the dark alleys of the city". Not only is the kiss ambiguous, but its effect on the Inquisitor is as well. Ivan concludes: "The kiss glows in his heart, but the old man adheres to his idea".

[In our times the church has been replaced by the Nanny State dispensing goodies in exchange for freedom.]


atharsis (from the Greek κάθαρσις katharsis meaning "purification" or "cleansing") is the purification and purgation of emotions—especially pity and fear—through art or any extreme change in emotion that results in renewal and restoration. It is a metaphor originally used by Aristotle in the Poetics to describe the effects of tragedy on the spectator. (Wikipedia)

The Theban cycle of Sophocles consist of three plays: Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone. All three plays concern the fate of Thebes during and after the reign of Oedipus.  Although Sophocles, however, wrote the three plays for separate festival competitions, many years apart, all deal with the tragedy of Oedipus and his family. There are three type of conflict or dialectics in the cycle. [If you, gentle reader, are unfamiliar with the Theban Cycle there are many versions available online.]

First: Turf Conflict

After the death of Oedipus his two sons Polyneices and Eteocles fight to the death over the throne of Oedipus. A fight of two voluptuaries, akin to drug lords struggling for turf. Their senseless power struggle resulting in the death of both brothers is one of the lowest forms of the dialectic.

Second: Conflict of Principles

Antigone is faced with the choice of allowing her brother Polyneices' body to remain unburied, outside the city walls, exposed to the ravages of wild animals, or to bury him and face death herself. The king of the land, Creon, has forbidden the burial of Polyneices for he was a traitor to the city. Antigone decides to bury his body and face the consequences of her actions. Creon sentences her to death. Eventually Creon is convinced to free Antigone from her punishment, but his decision comes too late and Antigone commits suicide. Her suicide triggers the suicide of two others close to King Creon: his son, Haemon, who was to wed Antigone, and his wife, Eurydice, who commits suicide after losing her only surviving son. In the play there are plenty of  opposites and conflicts driving the drama: state v. family, age v. youth, male v. female, power v. powerlessness, reason v. emotion, state v. religion and the protagonists unable to find the middle ground, annihilate not only one another, but innocents on the sideline. In Jean Anouilh's version of Antigone the play is purposefully ambiguous with regard to the rejection of authority (represented by Antigone ) and the acceptance of it (represented by Creon), as the play was staged during the Nazi occupation of Paris.

Third: The Internal Conflict

  • "...what fascinates us is the spectacle of a man freely choosing, from the highest motives a series of actions which lead to his own ruin. Oedipus might have left the plague to take its course; but pity for the sufferings of his people compelled him to consult Delphi. When Apollo's word came back, he might still have left the murder of Laius uninvestigated; but piety and justice required him to act. He need not have forced the truth from the reluctant Theban herdsman; but because he cannot rest content with a lie, he must tear away the last veil from the illusion in which he has lived so long. Teiresias, Jocasta, the herdsman, each in turn tries to stop him, but in vain; he must read the last riddle, the riddle of his own life. The immediate cause of Oedipus' ruin is not "fate or "the gods"—no oracle said that he must discover the truth—and still less does it lie in his own weakness; what causes his ruin is his own strength and courage, his loyalty to Thebes, and his loyalty to the truth." (E.R. Dodds, "On Misunderstanding the Oedipus Rex," "Greece and Rome 13 ((1966) p.43."

    Oedipus strength and courage to find the truth leads him to discover that he has killed his own father and married his own mother. He blinds himself, symbolizing the gaining of inward sight, and becomes an outcast. The audience experiences catharsis, weeps, and goes home feeling  purged. But that is not the end.

    Oedipus has purged himself of all pretense by pursing the truth. Only those of us who can disabuse ourselves of our vanity can truly become human and free. Otherwise, we thrash about in issuelessness confusion, protecting the false image we have constructed of ourselves. Robert McNamara and Dick Chaney, two men instrumental in leading their country into senseless wars, both defended their actions for decades after their wars proved to be disastrous; dogs growling over bones. [Antigone. You can't admit it, of course; you have to go on growling and defending the bone you call happiness. ..]

    In Oedipus at Colonus the tragic hero affirms that he is no guilty because his crimes of murder and incest were committed in ignorance. When he killed King Laius, he was acting in self defense. Moreover, he knows he has been absolved by Zeus.

    At the end of the play a messenger enters and tells the chorus that Oedipus is dead. That he bathed himself and poured libations, while his daughters grieved. He told them that their burden of caring for him was gone, and asked King Theseus to swear not to forsake his daughters. Then he sent his children away, for only Theseus could know the place of his death, and pass it on to his heir. When the messenger turned back to look at the spot where Oedipus last stood, he says that "We couldn't see the man- he was gone- nowhere! And the king, alone, shielding his eyes, both hands spread out against his face as if- some terrible wonder flashed before his eyes and he, he could not bear to look."    (Fagles translation)

    The reference to the dialectic introduced in the Theban Cycle are hinted at in the Antigone play where the Chrous is given these lines:

    There is much that is strange, but nothing
    that surpasses man in strangeness.
    He sets sail on the frothing waters
    amid the south winds of winter
    taking through the mountains
    and furious chasms of the waves.
    He wearied even the noblest of gods, the Earth,
    indestructible and untiring,
    overturning her from year to year,
    driving the plows this way and that
    with horses.
    And man, pondering and plotting,
    snares the light-gliding birds
    and hunts the beasts of the wilderness
    and the native creatures of the sea.
    With guile he overpowers the beast
    that roams the mountains by night as by day,
    he yokes the hirsute neck of the stallion
    and the undaunted bull.

    And he has found his way
    to the resonance of the word,
    and to wind-swift all-understanding,
    and to the courage to rule over cities.
    He has considered also how to flee
    from exposure to the arrows
    of unpropitious weather and frost.

    Everywhere journeying, inexperienced and without issue,
    he  comes to nothingness.
    Through no flight can he resist
    the one assault of death,
    even if he has succeeded in cleverly evading
    painful sickness.

    Clever indeed, mastering
    the ways of skill beyond all hope,
    he sometimes accomplishes evil,
    sometimes achieves brave deeds.
    He wends his way between the laws of the earth
    and the adjured justice of the gods.
    Rising high above his place,
    he who for  the sake of adventure takes
    the nonessent for essent* looses
    his place in the end.

    May such a man never frequent my hearth;
    May my mind never share the presumption
    of him who does this.

    *essent: that acting in accordance with the logos/hagia sophia  which is nascent in every human being.

     123. Physis loves to hide

    water  Uunderwater sculpture by Jason Decaires Taylor
    Creon to Antigone: "And if, tomorrow, some wild and bearded messenger walks in from some wild and distant valley --which is what happened to your dad --and tells me that he's not quite sure who my parents were, but thinks that my wife Eurydice is actually my mother, I shall ask him to do me the kindest to go back where he came from; and I shan't let a little matter like that persuade me to order my wife to take a blood test and the police to let me know whether or not my birth certificate was forged."  -Jean Anouilh's Antigone


    Reification is a fallacy of ambiguity, when an abstraction or hypothetical construct is treated as if it were a concrete, real event, or physical entity. In other words, it is the error of treating as a concrete thing, something which is not concrete, but merely an idea.  A hypothetical construct as a concept for which there is not a single observable referent, which cannot be directly observed, and for which there exist multiple referents, but none all-inclusive. For example,  a fish is not a hypothetical construct because, despite variation in species and varieties of fish, there is an agreed upon definition for a fish with specific characteristics that distinguish a fish from a bird. Furthermore, a fish can be directly observed. On the other hand a hypothetical construct has no single referent; rather, hypothetical constructs consist of groups of functionally related behaviors, attitudes, processes, and experiences. Instead of seeing intelligence, love, or fear we see indicators or manifestations of what we have agreed to call intelligence, love, or fear. Yin Yang, the Logos, the Hagia Sophia are constructs; they can not be demonstrated as can the Laws of thermodynamics. Nevertheless.....